Literature and Copywriting – Chalk and Cheese?

To strive, to seek, to find…great deals on home insurance

The world of literature is no stranger to copywriters.  Elmore Leonard, Joseph Heller, Peter Mayle and Salman Rushdie were all copywriters before finding literary fame.  Remember the slogan “naughty but nice” advertising cream cakes?  That was Rushdie’s brainchild.

Clearly being good with words in a marketing context can bode well for writing literature, but can we reverse-engineer this process?  Is it constructive to look at great literature for inspiration when writing great copy?

Come, Watson, the game is afoot!  …At Martin’s Sports Shoe Locker

Since both literature and copywriting involve effective communication through words it seems logical enough to expect a strong connection.  Both types of writing need to hold the reader’s attention and convey information clearly.  However, in reality the writing style of most novelists would be disastrous if applied to the needs of marketing copy.

Good copy cannot afford to be wasteful with words.  Neither can it luxuriate in flourishes of language that are not directly working to generate action from the reader.  Charles Dickens once referred to “a hot infusion of oriental leaves”.  That’s “a cup of tea” to you and me.

Literature is more expansive and about escaping into other worlds, not connecting readers to the real world and encouraging them to act.  Great literature is about generating pleasure through sophisticated writing, allusive imagery and frequently challenging vocabulary.   Great copywriting is about communicating with the masses, which needs concise clarity.  So perhaps we should leave novels on the shelf and just focus on reading other people’s successful copy in order to write better copy ourselves.  Maybe the only place for classic writers is in classic adverts.


I can resist everything except…Temptation’s range of sinfully delicious ice creams.

There is another way of looking at it.  If all we do is read other people’s copy then what we risk is repeating other people’s copy.  The tricks, techniques and trends in circulation just spin a little wider and faster, not going anywhere new.  Whereas what we can appreciate so much from literature is the power of creativity and innovation.

To take an old maxim, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  That would be the argument for sticking solely to copy for inspiration.  Tried and tested techniques have worked for years, so look no further.  But you can call up another maxim in response: familiarity breeds contempt.  People know the old approaches of “Last few days – hurry before our Big Sale ends!”

These techniques turn into cliché.  Rather like using maxims.  Great literature avoids cliché like the plague, unless employed with post-modern irony, of course.  That’s why there can be benefits in reading widely.

Simply translating the approaches of fiction writers to copy is never going to work.  Looking to literature is not about copying techniques, it’s about being alive to the possibilities of language.  Clarity is vital in copy, but it’s equally important to engage readers, to make them remember your message and inspire them to act.  Generating a spark in your words, something that makes them different, distinctive and alive is vital to this process.  And it’s what creative writers have been doing for millennia.

Out, damned spot!  Stubborn stains vanish with Scott’s stain remover

Part of the reason for Shakespeare’s astonishing success is his skill with language, using his poetic sensibility to embody ideas with striking originality, through fresh and powerful expression.  With a few words he conveys ideas with total clarity, reaching within the listener’s mind to make startling contact.  Here are just a few examples:

  • Method in the madness
  • A sorry sight
  • Pomp and circumstance
  • Seen better days
  • Full circle

These have become clichés now, but only because they so perfectly encapsulate ideas with which people connect.  Shakespeare’s coinages fill the English language – there are hundreds more – and we can learn a lot about how to take words and make them strike a powerful chord in the reader. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it doesn’t have to be ‘literary’; it simply needs to speak with conviction and originality in words that resonate.

The same thing can happen with advertising copy.  A common expression nowadays is to say something “Does exactly what it says on the tin”, originating from a series of adverts for Ronseal varnish and wood stain.  This slogan cleverly tapped into people’s desire to trust a product to deliver what it promises.  That’s why it has now evolved beyond that original advertising context.

Even one of Shakespeare’s coinages has been re-coined for the marketing world with “There’s method in the Magners”, used to advertise cider.  This is perhaps less likely to become a classic.

The point, however, is that sometimes copywriters post online with advice about forgetting literature and even actively avoiding it, lest you start to pick up bad writing habits that lack economy and clarity.

I think that’s a mistake.  Literature isn’t a guide for copywriting, it’s a source of inspiration and creativity in relation to words.  Language is incredibly rich and the more you read talented wordsmiths in fiction, the sharper your own sensibilities become. Of course as a copywriter you continue reading all the copy you can to keep up with the game, but just as an Italian chef isn’t just going to eat Italian, it’s important to broaden your experiences of imaginative writing. It just might add a spicy new twist to your own dish.

Call me Ishmael… on 0845 619 4411 for striking copy that generates results.

About David

I'm a professional copywriter from Nexus Copywriting and there's a little more about me here. Or, if you'd like to see how I can benefit your business, find out about my copywriting services.
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2 Responses to Literature and Copywriting – Chalk and Cheese?

  1. Copywriting says:

    Hi, I’m Luca, italian copywriter since 2005.
    Trying to explain to my mother my job, I’m putting my copywriting portfolio online and turned it into a blog, give it a look even if you want …
    I was thinking of a collaboration between our two sites.
    If the idea inspires you, write me at [email protected] so I can explain you.

  2. David says:

    Hi Luca,

    Thanks for stopping by. Good luck explaining what you do to your mother! A lot of people are generally mystified by the profession, as I write about in You’re a Copywriter? Isn’t it Cheating to Copy?

    I think I’d have to pass on the collaboration angle, but if I come across any clients needing copy work in Italian I’ll certainly pass them your details.

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